Pinkie was pacing rhythmically back and forth, a green general helmet upon her head. “Pound Cake!”
“Yes, ma’am!” he said in a gruff voice.
“Yes, ma’am!” she replied in the same tone.
“Front and center!”
“Yes, ma’am!” they replied, marching until they were right in front of her, standing almost unnaturally still and straight, serious looks on their faces.
“We’re on a mission today! Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to go to the beach. While there, you will do your best to have fun and be good little kids.” She stopped her marching, turning directly toward them. “Do you think you have what it takes, little foals?”
“I can’t hear you!”
“YES, MA’AM!” they replied strongly.
“Hmmm? Is that so?” She leaned over, squinting at Pound Cake, who met her gaze without backing away. “Well, then. I guess you might be able to handle it.
“NOW! As we discussed, what are the most important RULES you are to follow while there?”
“Rule one!” said Pound. “No swimming unless there’s an adult in there with you.”
“Rule two!” said Pumpkin. “Be kind and try to make friends.”
“Rule three! Be respectful to other pony’s personal space.”
“Rule four! Do your best not to get into any fights.”
Pinkie gave an authoritative nod. “Very good. And? What is the biggest, superest, most important rule?”
Pound and Pumpkin recited together, “Even if we do something bad and you get mad it DOESN’T mean you stopped loving us. You only hate the behavior, and not us!”
Pinkie took a shuddering breath, her act breaking as she looked down at the twins. “R-r-right,” she said in a quivering voice. Forcing a smile on her face she said quickly, “Okay! I’ve gotta go pack, so you guys get ready too.”
As Pinkie left the two of them looked at each other, gloomy expressions on their faces. They both let out a little sigh. “Auntie Pinkie is sad,” said Pound with a little groan.
“She’s been like this all week,” Pumpkin said, a bit of guilt in her stomach.
The night they came back from running away they had slept with Auntie Pinkie because they had wanted the comfort and love. The night afterward they kept getting woken up by her quickly opening the door and rushing in, making sure they were both in their beds. Even though they insisted they were fine and weren’t upset it didn’t make a difference. After the fifth time this happened Pinkie just straight up grabbed them out of their beds and took them up to hers. The whole week she had taken them to her room to sleep,
They adored sleeping with their Auntie Pinkie, so they didn’t object. However, they were growing worried over how anxious she had been lately. Pinkie usually alternated between helping out in the shop and periodically checking in on them during work hours, but now she was spending almost all her free time with them, saying oodles of positive things to keep their spirits up. She was still feeling responsible for not being supportive enough and driving them to run away, and wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again.
They walked upstairs, past their rooms, and up the second set of stairs toward Pinkie Pie’s room. As they approached they could hear the sound of crying, and the heaviness inside them increased. The door was open a crack, and Pound knocked a few times before pushing the door open.
Pinkie tried to stifle her crying, bursting up with an overly happy expression that didn’t meet her eyes. “Hey, you guys. Shouldn’t you be getting ready?”
Pound shook his head. “No. We need to talk to you.”
“We know that you’re upset and feeling guilty,” said Pumpkin.
“You think it’s your fault that we ran away.”
“But it’s not!”
The twins had her dead to rights. She couldn’t deny it when they already knew the truth.
The two of them came up on the bed with her, both of them hugging her. “It’s not all your fault. None of this would have happened if we didn’t lose control and start a fight with those other kids.”
Pumpkin nodded. “It was just… everybody. No one was on our side. Getting yelled at so many times for the same thing.”
“So it’s not all your fault. Please stop blaming yourself.” He gave her a kiss on the cheek. “We love you, Auntie Pinkie, and we don’t want you to feel sad anymore. It’s over, and we forgive you.”
Pinkie’s eyes clenched shut as she sucked in a sharp breath, holding the both of them and letting her tears fall again. “It’s not that. It’s not that!”
“What is it then?” asked Pound.
“You two were very lucky not to be hurt, and that you ran into Fluttershy. This is the second time, though. Both times Fluttershy was able to help you out, but still this makes two times.”
“Two times what?” Pumpkin asked, her head tilting.
“Two times that you ran away from home. When you accidentally destroyed that cake I made you felt too afraid that I wouldn’t love you anymore and ran away to someone you trusted. And this time you just so happened to run into Fluttershy on your walk, and she took you in and helped you through most of your issues so you could talk to us and we could resolve things.
“Both times I felt so terrified, feeling like it was my fault for not being there for you. And what about the next time? What if you’re not so lucky next time? When I found Pound’s saddlebag abandoned I was horrified that someone had foalnapped you.”
She looked down at them with teary eyes. “You two are a big part of my life, like my very own children. I couldn’t stand it if anything happened to you because of my negligence. “
“W-well, we just won’t do that anymore,” Pound responded, starting to move his hooves. “Cross my heart-”
“NO!” Pinkie said, slapping his hoof. The two gave her confused looks. “P-please. Don’t do that.”
“Why not?” asked Pumpkin.
“You two are still young, and you don’t have good control of your emotions yet. If something happens and you DO decide to run away from home I don’t want you to be scared to return because you think I’ll hate you for breaking a Pinkie Promise. J-just please understand that I will always love you no matter what. No matter how badly you screw up I will ALWAYS be there for you. That’s why I’ve been pushing so hard for you to know that important rule. The only thing I will ever hate about you is bad behavior, but I love both of you from the bottom of my heart, flaws and all. Like the rule goes, I may get angry or upset when you break the rules, and I may avoid you for a time because I don’t want to lose my temper on you, but all of that is only temporary. Once I feel better my love will always be there waiting for you, and that’s a Pinkie Promise for life.”
She pulled the two of them tight to her. “I promise that to you. Even IF you somehow turned evil I would still be there for you always, because I’d always know you were still the same sweet kids I knew deep down, and I’d do all I could to turn you good again. I will never give up on you guys, and I really need you to believe that and not run away anymore.
“I know that things will be tough, and may sometimes get overwhelming, but if you feel like you can’t take it anymore just tell me. If I don’t feel safe to handle it I can take you to Fluttershy’s house. There is always another way and ways we can work things out without resorting to trying to leave town. I just love you so much, and I don’t want to feel that horrible guilt for being too late like I did last week.”
The twins held her back with all their strength. “W-we’ll try, Auntie Pinkie!” Pumpkin said strongly. “B-because I love you so much too.”
“Me too!” Pound added.
“Great,” she responded. “That’s all I’m asking for.
“Now, I think we’ve all had a little too much negativity for such a fun day. After all, we’re celebrating the fact you get to go back to school tomorrow, and you’ve both been working so hard to improve, so I propose a nice round of jumping on the bed.”
Their faces lit up. “I’m game!”
“Me too!” said Pumpkin.
Releasing them and standing up she began to hop around, the kids quickly joining in with her, and within seconds they were laughing and giggling and smiling, their sadness quickly vanishing. After a few minutes she called a halt to the activity, telling them they still had to get ready to leave.
Once they were all packed they headed downstairs, Cup Cake and Carrot Cake waiting for them. Climbing up on their parent’s backs the five of them went to the castle to meet up with Twilight.
“Hi, Twilight!” Pound and Pumpkin said cheerily.
“Hey, you guys,” said Twilight. She inclined her head to Cup Cake and Carrot Cake. “And hello to you too. I bet you’re eager to be back to having some free time again, huh?”
Cup Cake shrugged. “Not much free time. We still have the shop to look after, after all.”
Pound leaned over his mom’s mane, saying, “Auntie Pinkie is still feeling bad about last week, so she tries to make sure that we know that she’ll always love us, even if we do bad things.”
Pinkie let out a little sigh, nodding in agreement. “I just keep thinking that if I had only come to them a little earlier we could have avoided a lot of trouble.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Twilight responded. In a politely scolding voice she continued, “There’s no point in harping on about the past. What’s done is done. They might not have believed you if you did come to them earlier. The only thing you can do from here is learn from the experience and try to act differently the next time, which it sounds like you’ve been doing. So have I.”
She sighed again. “I know, Twilight. You’re right, but I just worry about what could happen the next time.”
“We promised we would try not to run away anymore, because she promised she’ll always love us no matter what,” said Pumpkin.
“Are you listening to them, Pinkie? I think they get it. Now smile. Don’t ruin today’s happiness with tomorrow’s worries. They’re here now, so let’s enjoy ourselves.”
She gave a weak smile, but a smile nonetheless. “Okay, Twilight.”
While they waited for the others Twilight looked thoughtfully at the pair. As she had said she had pushed her other royal duties back or rescheduled appointments or meetings to devote her whole week to spending time with the two of them. It was a real learning experience for sure. That four year gap in age between when she had started to interact with the Cutie Mark Crusaders and when she had begun to interact with Pound and Pumpkin was indeed huge. The way they thought, the way they acted, the way they responded to things… so much was foreign to her, and she realized how wrong she was to think they were so similar.
She instructed them on the reasons for healthy communication, reasons to avoid violence, how enemies could become friends if you just put in the effort. She knew that some of what she was saying was beyond their understanding at their age, but she hoped it would make more sense in the future.
After giving them a lecture she tried giving them tests on keeping their cool, and there the big differences between the two of them quickly became apparent.
After getting the complete story of what their first day of school was like she thought their greatest weakness was a lack of experience with peer pressure. All the problems that day seemed to stem from it.
Using her magic she created illusion ponies. Solid enough to interact with their environment, but extremely fragile. Working to create as close as possible to their situation she set up a number of fillies and colts, who could act independently, and tested them on their willpower. They were both understandably nervous about having a repeat of the previous day. Twilight was insistent that she had learned her lesson and was going to remain calm, as she was just there to observe and learn. Far better for them to fail in practice than in an actual situation.
Pinkie Pie, Cup Cake, and Carrot Cake, also wishing to avoid another fallout like they had the day before, were instructed to just observe and learn as well, and avoid any judgment or scolding’s so they could learn better ways to respond to them.
Twilight put them through their paces, preparing a number of “programs” for the illusion kids, to see how the twins would respond to various situations.
Pumpkin was relatively coolheaded. She could get annoyed easily when Pound acted stupidly, but mainly responded well and quickly to the lessons, adapting to the challenge. Pound, on the other hoof, was far more impulsive and had greater difficulty keeping his cool, especially when Pumpkin was involved. Even while interacting with the illusion kids they were somewhat aware it was a fake situation, and their observers were simply seeing if they gave the expected, appropriate responses. When one of those scenarios included a colt having a disagreement with Pumpkin and shoving her to the ground Pound completely lost his cool and immediately ran over and tackled him to the ground.
The impact broke the spell, and it vanished, leaving Pound breathing hard. After a few seconds he thought he could feel the stares of their watchers, and he began cowering, afraid of what they were going to do to him.
Twilight walked over to him, putting a hoof on his trembling shoulder. In a perfectly calm voice she said, “Don’t be afraid, Pound. This is a lesson. You’re not going to get it right away. Let’s just try again. Repeated exposure to a certain stimulus can make it lose its power.”
“Huh?” he said, looking up at her like she had three heads.
“If Pumpkin having troubles with other ponies is a powerful trigger that makes you lose control then going through it over and over will eventually dull that reaction.”
He frowned at her. “Then I’m not doing it!”
“Why not?” she said, curious.
“You’re trying to tell me I’m eventually not going to care when other ponies are being mean to my sister?”
Twilight shook her head. “No. Not at all. The goal is for you to stop letting your emotions control you. As I said before when there’s trouble you should try to get an older pony to help settle things. You react so quickly, acting before you think, that you don’t have time to do anything but lash out.
“Wanting to protect your sister is good. It’s the method you use that we have a problem with.”
“Just… let you handle everything?” he asked, not sounding very enthused.
She nodded. “Correct. As we’re older and more experienced we are better able to maintain control over our emotions and set the rules.”
He sighed. “Alright, I’ll give it a shot.”
Pumpkin easily got used to turning to one of the four adults when there were problems. When Pound was being picked on by them he sometimes got confrontational verbally, and sometimes he would realize what he was doing and turn to the adults too. When it came to Pumpkin, though, it was another matter entirely. It was a definite trigger for him, and he would violently lash out each and every time the bullying kids got physical with her.
He would realize what he’d done shortly afterward when his hot head cooled, and quickly become filled with a seething guilt, desperately wanting to avoid being yelled at, but no bad words came his way. Twilight didn’t get angry despite his many failed attempts, and so he slowly became less afraid of screwing up. Not being bullied for not doing it right he resolved to work harder, but it always went right out the window as soon as Pumpkin was hurt, even if it was just pretend.
When Twilight wasn’t testing them she was conversing with them, trying to learn more about their lives and what kinds of things they thought about and did during the day. Sometimes she would just quietly observe them in their natural lives, seeing both the good and the bad sides of them. She found it oddly amusing that despite how fiercely he protected his sister from others the two of them could snipe and yell and sometimes even fight with the best of them.
On the fifth day it seemed that Twilight’s theory was at last coming into play. Repeated exposure to the same situation was finally showing some effect. Seeing his compulsive nature Twilight had shifted things just a bit to try to give him more time, holding him in place with her magic for ten seconds as he went to lash out. She hoped that by stopping him at the greatest emotional point they could bypass the worst of it and give him a chance to cool off by himself.
It was an effective method. Sometimes it still wasn’t enough, but sometimes it was. She could sometimes see him shaking with fury, but staying in place, glaring at the illusion child. With more time and practice he actually managed to keep his head enough to complain to her about the bullying. By the end of the day she was shortening the amount of time she had to hold him back.
They had a small party that night, praising and rewarding him for doing better. Pound was kinda bashful, clearly enjoying the attention. He was happiest that throughout everything Twilight never lost her temper or raised her voice. When he messed up she just encouraged him to try again. It allowed him to make mistakes without being afraid.
On the sixth day she gave it a few practice runs to be sure Pound was in the right mindset before she chanced giving him full rein and not stopping him with her magic.
It was a long day. Without Twilight’s interference it was almost like starting from square one, but little by little he began to conquer his impulses. He tried to think of how happy everyone had been the previous day, and used that as his motivation to try to beat his natural inclination to lose his temper.
Hours later he finally made real progress when he not only didn’t lash out, but didn’t seem nearly as furious as usual, when he’d have to spit out his words through gritted teeth because he was so annoyed.
Twilight was overjoyed, holding him and spinning him around as she praised him for his hard work. He felt that light inside of him like he did yesterday, and he was eager for more nice things.
By the end of that day he was becoming pretty consistent about quickly turning to Twilight when things turned sour.
When Cup Cake, Carrot Cake, and Pinkie got off work later Twilight eagerly took them to show them what all his hours of practice had done for Pound. When they saw Pound completely keep his cool all three of them clapped hard for him, and Pound felt so overjoyed.
As a reward for their tremendous progress Twilight suggested they spend their last day of being suspended at the beach, where she hoped they could demonstrate the same progress in a real-life situation as they did in practice.